Prof’s documentary about teaching film in Cuba premieres in Havana

A film still from EICTV student Lillah Halla's Emovere

Film Professor Philip Hoffman’s new “poetic documentary”, Lessons in Process, makes its world premiere at the 34th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema running in Havana, Cuba, Dec. 4 to 14.

Hoffman based his film on his experiences teaching at Cuba’s famed Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión de San Antonio de los Baños (EICTV) over the past three years. Since the school was founded in 1986, thousands of students and professionals from more than 50 countries have worked there, earning it the nickname The School of all Worlds.

A film still from Hoffman’s Lessons in Process with Hoffman and his students shooting on location in HavanaA film still from Hoffman’s Lessons in Process with Hoffman and his students shooting on location in Havana

“Teaching at EICTV has been exhilarating,” said Hoffman. “Like in the Department of Film at York, the students there are bright and driven. The difference is that EICTV students are allowed to concentrate on one subject over extended periods of time, rather than juggling several subjects simultaneously. This creates an intensity that resonates, perhaps most deeply after the course experience.”

Hoffman’s workshops are based around the concept of process filmmaking – filmmaking that takes its cue from the unfolding of life before the lens, rather than a written script. He collaborates with the students to produce exercises in cinematic process that employ haiku poetry, continuous takes, in-camera editing and found footage as a connection to their temporal everyday.

Statue, a film still from Hoffman’s Lessons in Process Statue, a film still from Hoffman’s Lessons in Process 

Lessons in Process was made with two different groups of documentary students over the course of three workshops at EICTV. The first workshop took place in January 2010 during the time of the Haiti earthquake, and the class discussed the possibilities of making a film about the experience, the media coverage of the tragedy and the processes they were involved in during the course. A second workshop with the same students to develop and edit the film was held in December 2010.

Last February, Hoffman returned to EICTV once more to conduct a workshop with a new group of documentary students, among them five graduate students from York’s MFA Program in Film. They screened, discussed and critiqued a rough-cut of the film. Hoffman completed Lessons in Process this past summer with the assistance of EICTV graduate Marcel Beltrán.

As in most of Hoffman’s productions, serendipity guided the filmmaking process, bringing together three interweaving narrative threads: the aging co-founder of the school, Fernando Birri; the earthquake in Haiti; and Hoffman’s father’s last days. Hoffman includes his students’ footage too, touching on generations, influences, legacies and traditions – and perhaps above all, on the obligations and responsibilities of the image-making process.

A film still from Claudia Hebert’s “…” Said the CatA film still from Claudia Hebert’s “…” Said the Cat

“In Lessons in Process we borrowed from the text Haiku Volume 1, Eastern Culture, by R.H. Blyth, who suggests that haiku is “ ‘a state of mind in which we are not separated from other things’,” said Hoffman. “This phrase comes up in the film through text on the screen, and it’s the key to the way I’ve been trying to make films lately. In making documentary films, it’s customary to stay with one subject, which of course helps us to grasp that subject. However, life is actually different: we may be immersed in one thing and then something else comes along, which unexpectedly sheds light on it.

“For our purposes, ‘not being separated from other things’ meant that in the practice of process cinema, anything we experienced was fair game. The three interweaving threads seemingly do not fit together in an obvious way, but because they were in our lives during the making of the film, we found ways to integrate them, and unexpected meanings surfaced.”

As part of the February 2012 workshop, each student was given a 100-ft. roll of 16mm film (approximately 3 minutes of footage) to shoot with a Bolex camera. The films were hand-processed in a photographic darkroom and transferred to digital video. Each student then edited their own film.  Nine of these short productions, including three by York students, are also screening at the Havana Film Festival.

A film still from EICTV student Lillah Halla's EmovereA film still from EICTV student Lillah Halla’s Emovere

The festival is an excellent international platform for the York students to showcase the results of this experiential educational opportunity. Tara Khalili’s Untitled  reveals an outsider’s view of a small Cuban town, San Antonio de los Baños. “…” Said the Cat by Claudia Hebert is a mesmerizing trip down Alice’s rabbit hole. Celebration by Pouyan J. Dezfoulian was made entirely with found footage, showing an unexplored side of cinematic obsession.

“It was rewarding to bring graduate film students from York to the school in Cuba,” Hoffman said. “I was proud of the work they did, and how well they integrated with the EICTV students.

“While the exercises in the Process Cinema course are small compared to the major thesis films which our MFA students had at the forefront of their minds, I found the students were freer to exercise their intuition and further develop their filmmaking through these small films. Time and time again in my teaching, I’ve seen how these little “cine-poems” snowball into big, beautiful, artistic gestures.”

While in Havana for the festival, Hoffman is teaching another process filmmaking workshop at EICTV and he’s organizing yet another Process Cinema course to be held in Cuba in February 2013 with York’s second-year MFA film class and EICTV’s second-year documentary class.

“I’m expecting this will be another rewarding experience for all,” said Hoffman.